The issue of the Canon...

The OT model of judging revelation: The promise of an alternate route to the Abrahamic blessings: New hearts, New Covenant, New Moses
[Created 8/6/97]

God had always desired the happiness, prosperity, and peace of His people. The Sinai Covenant was designed to provide those benefits to previously-enslaved people, insignificant in world history at the time. The Law was flawless in its design--incorporating justice for the oppressed, encouraging health in the community, providing for forgiveness of covenant violations by the people, differentiating Israel from her neighbors (giving a sense of uniqueness), and fostering tight community values through religious festivals and celebration.

But the Law between God and man had one major weakness--us! The historical unfolding of humanity's failure to keep even our limited part of the bargain was well documented in the OT. The failure of the very institutions created to perpetuate covenant loyalty (i.e. civil leadership, the priesthood, prophetic schools, lay sages, family education) brought about the awesome consequences spelled out (and agreed to by Israel) in the Treaty: Captivity and Exile.

As the prophets--sent by YHWH to call His people back to the Law--consistently warned, begged, ridiculed, challenged Israel to 'seek the Lord while He may be found', they also began announcing the NEW covenant--a NEW way for YHWH to bless his people IN SPITE OF THEIR limitations.

Probably the most famous statement of this shift in God's program for Israel is in Jeremiah 31:

"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer 31.31ff)
Notice a couple of elements in this:
  1. It is a NEW covenant--NOT the 'old' one.
  2. It is somehow NOT LIKE the 'old' one.
  3. The 'old' one is apparently 'broken'.
  4. The new one is 'after that time'--it is yet future to Jeremiah, and it is here announced BEFORE the Exile!
  5. It involves putting the law INSIDE the minds/hearts of the people.
  6. The knowledge of God will somehow NOT BE CONFINED to some teaching hierarchy (corrupted in this time as it was in the time of Jesus, cf. Luke 13.34: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! ) but be implanted/intrinsic in the people of God. Mediation by merely human priests and teachers, although perhaps useful, will not be necessary.

This is staggering in its implications. This LOOKS LIKE a departure from the very criteria of what constitutes authentic messages from God. It looks like a departure from the Law of Moses (although that would be ENTIRELY acceptable for the Suzerain, but not for the vassal, and this passage represents YHWH's message, not Israel's.)

But let's ask the question--how far back can we trace this promise of a 'new covenant'? How far back can we see the elements of this new treaty or relationship between God and His precious people?

To look at this, we need actually to go FORWARD in time first, to see how the later prophets 'fleshed' this promise out. In other words, how did other passages in Jeremiah speak of this, and how did Post-Exilic prophets understand this?

  • The Exilic/Post-Exilic Prophet: Ezekiel gives us more detail in the image of this future:

  • And finally, the Post-Return prophet Joel speaks about this massive "In-heart" work of YHWH
    Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed. `And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; (Joel 2)


    1. This phenomenon will occur LATER THAN the Return.
    2. It involves an 'outpouring of YHWH's Spirit' (as in Ezeky)
    3. The scope of the outpouring is ALL people--not just some leadership.
    4. It manifests itself as an advanced knowledge of God (i.e. prophetic insight)

    Notice the characteristics of this New Action/Covenant by God:

    1. it is DIFFERENT from the old one.
    2. it is being instituted because the old one was 'broken'
    3. it is future to all the OT passages that describe it
    4. it is announced before the Exile
    5. it involves putting the Law of God 'inside the hearts' of people
    6. it will distribute personal and intimate knowledge of God among the people (not requiring an information hierarchy)
    7. it involves giving the people 'singleness of heart'
    8. it involves considerable amount of In-heart work: inspiring, loyalty, "replacement", moving to obedience
    9. it is called an 'EVERLASTING' covenant (the Mosaic covenant is NOT called 'everlasting')
    10. it is somehow connected to the eternal reign of 'David' (linked to the Davidic covenant)
    11. it is somehow based on the Patriarchal covenants
    12. it will involve a 'new spirit' for the people.
    13. it will involve YHWH putting His Spirit inside the people (as opposed to just the leadership)
    14. it involves an 'outpouring of the Spirit'

    Notice that the main problem was a "heart and will" issue.

    Israel was supposed to take the Law of Moses and 'install it' into their hearts THEMSELVES. This shows up in both the instructions INSIDE the Law, and in the prophet's injunctions to do so as well.

    But we still have the question of the relationship of the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and New Covenants--how are they related?

    To see this we have to look at the pre-cursors to the announcement of the NEW covenant in Jeremiah, and its explication in the later prophets. We have to look for those common and distinguishing elements in early passages (even though the phrase 'new covenant' will not appear). Let's look at some of these now:

    What seems to emerge from this...

    God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, promising to give the land to his chosen posterity, and to bless the entire world through his posterity. Because Israel was in the line of Abraham, God chose them to establish a special Suzerain-Vassal conditional treaty (known as the Sinaitic/Mosaic covenant). Israel had the responsibility of loyalty to the Suzerain, but failed in their voluntary treaty commitments. The Suzerain sent many messengers (prophetic voices) to them, warning them of the consequences of betrayal and treason. But God had foreseen the failure of these descendants of Abraham, and began making other covenants with them that would be 'more secure' than the one based upon Israelite spirituality of the time. He established an everlasting covenant with David. He also blessed the Levites with an everlasting covenant of service (Jer 33.18). And as the days for the consequences of betrayal and disloyalty got closer (in the Exile), the prophets who warned of this legal judgment by the Suzerain ALSO spoke to the faithful of a NEW covenant, based on the promises to Abraham and to David, in which the limitations of the old one would be eliminated. In other words, the promise of the New, everlasting covenant was the hope of new and faithful hearts from YHWH for His people!

    Thus the prophets, far from introducing 'new gods' or encouraging the people to disobey the Law, stood firmly in the center of the Abrahamic commitments and revelation. Even as they increasingly held out the hope of the New Covenant, they relentlessly confronted God's people with the urgent demands of the Mosaic law. Micah's famous passage pointed out the simplicity of the requirements: And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6.8), but even this was too difficult for people with deep-seated propensities to disloyalty [not much different from us, I might add], as Jeremiah lamented: Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jer 13.23)

    For those who consistently confessed (and probably despaired of ) this failure (e.g. Nehemiah, Daniel), the hope of New Hearts must have been a source of deep encouragement and endurance.

    But this was not a surprise to YHWH somehow...

    He had told His precious ones in Deut that they would fail, and that He would do 'in heart' work in the future. And from the beginning He had promised another Moses, another servant, another messenger in the future:

    The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. ... 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. (Deut 18.15ff)
    and at the close of the OT, in the book of Malachi, YHWH proclaims that this messenger (now the very Angel of YHWH Himself!) will come to fulfill this:
    "See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3.1)
    YHWH would come to His people, and the messenger/Angel of this new Covenant--desired wholeheartedly by Israel-- would come to His dwelling place to take up residence among the descendants of Abraham.

    The implications of this discussion on the issue of canonicity boils down to this:

    1. The OT criteria of authenticity was fidelity to the previously-authenticated revelation of God: Mosaic or the foundations of the Mosaic--the Abrahamic.

    2. The OT prophetic role was always claiming to be connected to the voice of YHWH as setup in the Mosaic legislation.

    3. As part of this stream, they announced the coming of the New Covenant--setting ADDITIONAL or even more RESTRICTIVE criteria on authenticity. For example, the commands to 'pay attention to that prophet' (the New Moses) was very emphatic in the Mosaic pronouncements. Accordingly, the criteria of authenticity would include both fidelity to the requirements of the Old Covenant and fidelity to the promise of the New One.

    4. The New Covenant has a surprisingly non-mediated character to it. So, whereas in the OT decisions about canonicity (for example) would need to be made by the Spirit-empowered/endowed officials, UNDER the NEW COVENANT, the common folk would have a much greater role to play and indeed would constitute the 'majority voice'. With the law of God in their hearts, they would be able to 'sense' truth better under that scenario. The prospects for better accuracy and consensus is much more improved under the situation envisioned in the New Covenant.

    We will see in the next section how faithfully the OT prophets honored the Law and the previously-authenticated prior prophets in their ministry and proclamation.

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